Features Farm Fresh Markets: Autumn 2009
Farm Fresh Markets: Autumn 2009
October 2009

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run
— from “To Autumn” by John Keats

After the riotous crops of spring and summer, the fruits of fall fill farm stands with enticing variety and hearty consistency—from thick-skinned squashes and fragrant fruits to soil-caked roots and dark, leafy greens. For the chef, this cornucopia means a new range of flavor profiles and textures to play with in the kitchen—elements to distill, amplify, or otherwise transform from dish to dish.
The overriding lessons of fall produce? Approach each ingredient with imagination and patience. After all, what seems impossibly tough or tart can soften and sweeten with time and technique. And most importantly, allow yourself to rethink where and how to use sweet and savory ingredients. Experiment by using fall’s tart fruits, bitter greens, sugary squashes and savory roots, to name a few, in non-traditional dishes. Especially in a season rife with harvest clichés, the ability to think outside the “horn of plenty” is key. 

There are two varieties of persimmons, the Hachiya or Japanese persimmon and the Fuyu. The Hachiya is astringent (like extremely strong black tea) up until the point of ripeness, when it’s thoroughly softened and reaches the mellow, sweet flavor for which persimmons are treasured. Fuyu persimmons are firmer, flatter in shape (more like a tomato) and retain their crunchy texture into ripeness. The Hachiya is usually pureed (it’s so soft when ripe, it can be passed through a tamis or food mill), while the firmer Fuyu lends itself to slicing and can retain its character when cooked. Chef Harold Dieterle of Perilla in New York slices and sautés Fuyu persimmons with fresh spaetzle and roasted chestnuts, imparting a mellow sweetness and fleeting piquancy to his succulent roast squab.

Cauliflower is at its peak this time of year, and while most of what’s purchased is of the white Snowball variety, the green and vibrant purple variants have the same flavor profile and add an aesthetic element. But note that purple cauliflower changes to pale green during the cooking process, so any attempt to retain the color needs to avoid exposing the cauliflower to heat. Milk can be added during the cooking process to retain some color. The slightly nutty, verdant taste of cauliflower can act as a mellow backdrop for the season’s ubiquitous savory roasts and, as a puree or foam, cauliflower can provide a delicate pillow of flavor for any braised meat. Chef Paul Anders of Sweet Basil in Vail, Colorodao, demonstrates cauliflower’s versatility, using the delicate vegetable two ways in his loup de mer dish: caramelizing half of his florets with shallots and butter and pureeing the other half with savory chicken stock, truffle oil, heavy cream and garlic.

Between early September and late December, there is an influx of cranberries into farmers markets and grocery stores—and farmers are predicting that this year’s crop will be particularly flavorful. Cranberries have a strong character, including a rich ruby red color and a puckering piquancy of flavor, which when properly handled will add a graceful top note of tartness to the plate or can be added into the foundations of a long-cooking braised or roasted dish. Raw cranberries add a potent sourness to any fresh chutney, sourness that can be mellowed with the addition of sugar, honey, brown sugar, or molasses which both sweeten and add further depth of flavor. Chef Kevin Maxey of Craft in Atlanta builds cranberry flavor into the base of his roasted wild boar dish, releasing and mellowing its flavor over a long roasting time.

Like apples, pears are at their peak in the fall. In the US they’re primarily grown in California and Oregon, but farmers in many states have success in growing the fruit for small production. As a group pears are known for delicate floral flavors and a nectar-like sweetness. Although pears can ripen quickly to unpleasant graininess, a pear at its peak is incomparable and versatile in the kitchen, with crisper and softer varieties lending themselves to different preparations. Pastry Chef Drew Van Leuven of Toast in Atlanta uses the sweetness and crispness of the Bosc pear in a classic red-wine-and-spice poaching preparation for a deep ruby, rustic tart filling. Chef Kristine Subido of Wave in Chicago uses fresh Bosc pear – and fennel, another fall ingredient – in a refreshing salad accompanying rich, tender tuna crudo.

Fennel has a broad spectrum of culinary uses. Raw, braised, roasted, grilled, and sautéed, fennel can appear anywhere on a menu, among delicate salads, hearty roasts, creamy purees and beyond. Two varieties of fennel are used in cooking. Florence fennel, sometimes mistakenly called “sweet anise,” is characterized by celery-like stalks topped with delicate fronds of greenery, rooted to a large, whitish bulb. Common fennel, on the other hand, has no bulb, although its stalk and greens can be used in cooking, and produces ovular, brownish-green fennel seeds. Both kinds of fennel are known for imparting a licorice flavor, although the quality and impact of the flavor depends on both the variety and preparation of the fennel. Raw Florence fennel has a fresh, pronounced licorice bite, while the same variety cooked has a more delicate impact. Pastry Chef Lizzy Evelyn of Café Saint-Ex highlights the sweetness and herbal fragrance of fennel in sorbet paired with piquant hibiscus tea-infused “jello.”